Bigotry cannot hide behind freedom of speech
Throughout his two decades in various high offices, Czech President Klaus has repeatedly demonstrated that he is always willing to wield his political power to defend bigotry in general and individual bigots in particular. Whenever he is criticized for so abusing his public office – making of it a pulpit for his personal intolerance on every possible issue, real or imagined – his tactic is then to cry “censorship” and warn that totalitarianism is at hand. This trick has served him well with most of the country most of the time. While it is tiresome to have to do so, we must once again reveal his moves for the intellectually shallow, populist charlatanism that they are.
Mr Klaus is a master of inventing non-existent distinctions. If we did not know that his claim last month of being opposed to “homosexualism, not homosexuality” had been made by the leader of an EU Member State, we might assume it had been made by an Orwellian, Soviet-era propagandist, or perhaps by a late-night adolescent blogger attempting to be provocative. Sadly, this nonsense has been spouted by the most powerful man in the country on the eve of Prague’s first-ever Gay Pride Parade, an event police have warned will most probably be targeted by violent right-wing extremists. Next Klaus’s deputy, Petr Hajek, criticized the Mayor of Prague for providing his auspices to the upcoming parade, and was thankfully taken to task by various public figures for so doing. Klaus then rose to Hajek’s defense, and that defense deserves analysis, as it reveals a great deal.
Klaus states that he is not proud that LGBTQ activists will be holding, for the first time ever in the Czech capital, a Pride Parade similar to those held in other world capitals. This is unfortunate, and I for one definitely urge him to reconsider his views and to take pride in this event. If Klaus really believes, as he has always claimed, in freedom of assembly and speech, then he should be very proud that sexual minorities are exercising those freedoms in the capital. Instead, he is evidently ashamed and fearful that a new dogma is imposing itself upon him (as if such a thing were even possible).
When a staff member of the Office of the President, in his official role, criticizes the political decisions of an elected official, such as the Mayor of Prague, he must be aware that he is treading on delicate ground. It has long been customary for both Hájek and Klaus to deny outright that they are in fact in positions of power, that their statements could be in any way representative of anything other than personal views to which they are entitled. They patently refuse to acknowledge that every time they make a statement they are granting the “auspices” of the presidency of the republic itself to one cause or another. They also refuse to acknowledge that their public disapproval of the mayor’s decision is in and of itself a form of censorship. As politicians, they do everything for a reason: What outcome were they hoping for here? Did they hope Mayor Svoboda would change his mind? Or is this posturing simply for the benefit of those in the country who need to be reassured that their own embarrassment and fear about a Gay Pride Parade in Prague is “normal”?
Klaus next draws a crucial distinction between tolerance, of which he is a fan, and the kind of support expressed by Mayor Svoboda for the upcoming parade. He would have preferred that Svoboda merely “tolerated” the parade, i.e., that he would have maintained silence in the face of this objectionable occurrence. This is where Klaus’s decades of misunderstanding about democracy and freedom of speech reveal themselves for what they have been all along: Advocacy, in fact, of self-censorship for others and none for himself. This is what he means, at the end of his statement, when he exhorts those who have criticized Mr Hájek to be “tolerant”. He means they should shut up when they disagree.
Klaus then goes on to make the facile claim that “for him” (and who else, after all, matters?) the word “deviant”, which Mr Hájek used to describe non-heterosexuals, is “value-neutral”. The world would indeed be an easier place if we all spoke Klausese, a mathematically precise set of formulae where every word always and only retained its Klaus-prescribed definition (and “value”). Here again we see the crux of Klaus’s problem: He would do away entirely, if he could, with ever considering context, because it is annoying and requires him (heaven forbid) to consider variant perspectives on one and the same issue. Since no word is ever “value-neutral”, let’s review the context in which the term “deviant” has been used.
The concept of “deviancy” has a long and sordid history of being deployed in psychiatry as a term to brand as “diseased” persons who do not identify with their biological gender or who are attracted to the same sex. On this basis, LGBTQ people have been subjected to human rights abuses, disguised as medical “treatment”, for centuries. During the past 40 years, our understanding of human sexual behavior has thankfully evolved, and it is now being recognized that same-sex attraction, or identifying as male when your anatomy is female (or vice versa) are not diseases, but part of a continuum of human behavior. Not only are LGBTQ persons not ill, we should not be ashamed of them and have nothing to fear from them. On the contrary, they deserve respect for who they are in the human family. A demonstration of their pride in their humanity is important and necessary because these people are still a long way from receiving the respect of their fellow human beings. On the contrary, they are being subjected to discrimination and great violence all over the world. All those who value human diversity should support their fight for respect.
In the end, this is Mr Klaus’s problem: He does not respect or value human diversity. He craves uniformity, a trait he shares with intolerant bigots the world over, and he would like those of us who not only respect but celebrate human diversity to shut up. When we call for respect for human diversity, when we celebrate it, when we condemn those who would erase and silence it, he cries that we are “censoring” him or the other bigots to whom he has granted not just his auspices, but those of 10 million citizens of the Czech Republic.
Thankfully, each and every one of those people can and do act, speak, and think for themselves, and it is my hope that they will ignore their president’s hint to be afraid and ashamed of their fellow human beings. I personally look forward to the day when the people of the Czech Republic have a more worthy representative on the world stage.
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